Media blind to Afghan civilian deaths
In early September, Canadian military personnel stationed in Afghanistan's Kandahar province spearheaded NATO's Operation Medusa, aimed at Taliban strongholds in the Panjwaii and Zhari districts of that province. Accustomed to seeing the Canadian Forces' role as that of peace-keepers, many observers were stunned by reports that the Medusa offensive had resulted in hundreds of enemy combatants killed along with five fatalities suffered by Canadian soldiers. Meanwhile, there was a largely unreported civilian exodus as some 80,000 people fled their homes while “at least 50 civilians were killed over several weeks of bombing” (New York Times, Nov 27, A12).
Public concern here in Canada resulted in a surge of public debate and reflection, as evidenced by call-in radio programs, opinion polls and letters to the editor. All this has fuelled on-going organizing efforts across the country that continue to demand Canada's withdrawal from Afghanistan.
One might have expected our major national media to engage such an important discussion with in-depth news coverage of the conflict, along with critical and incisive editorials and opinion pieces. Instead, our most respected media went to considerable lengths to avoid negative portrayals of our military role and that of our NATO allies, even to the point of completely ignoring certain shocking and disastrous events which are of vital importance in understanding the role of our military in Afghanistan and its effects on the people of that country.
This article examines several recent instances of NATO forces killing Afghan civilians - all of which occurred well after the close of Operation Medusa - and the coverage which those events were given by our country's agenda-setting English newspapers: the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail.
At around 2am on October 18, NATO helicopters firing on houses in the village of Ashogo in Kandahar killed between nine and thirteen civilians, including women and children. Almost simultaneously, in neighboring Helmand province, another NATO air strike killed a reported thirteen civilians. Additionally, NATO revealed that just one purported Taliban insurgent was killed in the attacks. In fact, during the attack on Ashogo, there were no Taliban whatsoever in the village, according to local officials. NATO blamed the botched attacks on intelligence failures.
News of these two catastrophes was vividly related by a veteran Afghanistan reporter, Kathy Gannon, whose article was carried widely on the Associated Press wire. The Toronto Star (Oct 19) ran her AP report on page A7 with the title "NATO strikes kill villagers". That was pretty much the end of coverage in the Star: no editorials or opinion pieces weighed in on the killings. The paper did briefly revisit the events in a news article three days later (Oct 22, A14) in reporting on an Afghan father's accusations that during the Kandahar attack NATO troops had executed his wounded son when the soldiers had entered their house. (As for the allegation, NATO later announced that they had exonerated themselves on the matter. See "No evidence to support claim of execution-style killing of Afghan teen: NATO", Bill Graveland, Canadian Press, Nov 21.)
In terms of the Globe and Mail, that paper completely ignored the double tragedy when it came to light. Only when NATO air strikes killed more Afghan civilians the following week did the Globe even mention the earlier case. However, the Globe low-balled the body count when they did (belatedly) report the incident, stating on one day that twenty civilians had been killed by NATO in the October 18 attacks, only to state the next day that nine civilians had died. Evidently, the Globe chose to drop the Helmand province incident from their tally, and then opted to cite the lowest death estimate for the Kandahar attack by itself (Oct 26, A18; Oct 27, A17). Later, Human Rights Watch, in referring to these attacks, would surmise, “at least 22 civilians were killed as a result of NATO air operations in Kandahar and Helmand provinces.” (See HRW Letter to NATO, Nov 28.)
Less than a week after the two tragedies of October 18 came an even more horrible event. Before dawn on October 24 -- and on the cusp of Eid celebrations -- NATO air strikes in the Panjwaii district of Kandahar, ostensibly aimed at Taliban insurgents, claimed the lives of numerous innocent civilians. Estimates at the time ranged from 30 to 90 dead villagers; NATO initially conceded only 11 civilian deaths while claiming 48 dead insurgents. Survivors told of their homes being bombed and of fleeing across fields with their families, while NATO planes strafed them. Reportedly, over 50 homes were destroyed.
The Star and the Globe each ran a newswire report of the incident in their October 26 editions, and each followed it up the next day with an article featuring NATO confirmations of 11 dead civilians, along with the promise of Afghanistan's President Karzai to commission an investigation into the event. All four articles were to be found deep into the inside pages of the papers, though it is worth noting that three of the four featured headlines which boldly announced NATO's misdeeds. (See, G&M: "NATO admits killing more civilians", Oct 26, A18; "Women and children killed, NATO admits", Oct 27, A17; Toronto Star: "Troops kill 48 militants", Oct 26, A14; "Karzai calls for probe into killing of civilians", Oct 27, A10.) The Star let the issue drop after the 27th, while the Globe's Washington bureau chief Paul Koring referenced the tragedy one more time on October 28. However, neither paper ran any editorial comment on any of these tragic events of October, and no opinion columnists in either paper weighed in on these important developments, despite the fact that nation-wide protests over Canada's role in Afghanistan were set to take place just two days after the news broke of the Panjwaii bombing.
While the Star seems never to have revisited the story of the October 24th bombing, the issue did briefly resurface in the Globe and Mail. In a four-sentence redaction of a 740-word New York Times article, the Globe quoted an unnamed NATO official's leaked revelation that a joint study undertaken by NATO and the Afghan government had found that 31 civilians perished under the NATO attack (Nov 14, A14). Amazingly, by the end of the week, coverage in the Globe was already minimizing the calamity. A brief notice from the AP wire concerning two more civilians killed by NATO troops ended thus: "It's not the first time that civilians have been killed in battles in Afghanistan. Last month a skirmish involving NATO-led troops and insurgents resulted in several deaths." (Nov 17, A13)
In the wake of the October 24 incident, Human Rights Watch issued a pointed rejoinder to NATO. In an October 30 press release entitled "NATO Should Do More to Protect Civilians", the world's leading human rights organization criticized NATO's military operations, which "have resulted in the deaths of dozens of civilians across the country". Sam Zarifi, HRW's Asia research director, was pointed: "While NATO forces try to minimize harm to civilians, they obviously are not doing enough," he said. “NATO’s tactics are increasingly endangering the civilians" of Afghanistan, with the use of "highly destructive but hard-to-target weaponry". But Zarifi's condemnations, and those of his organization, went completely unreported in the Globe and the Star. More restrained criticism of NATO offered by both the Red Cross and the UN Mission in Afghanistan went similarly unreported.
The pattern continued the next month when Amnesty International was shut out of the two distinguished papers. In comments aimed at the NATO ministerial meeting in Riga at the end of November, Amnesty noted that NATO operations in Afghanistan had contributed to the displacement of up to 90,000 people and that NATO air strikes "may have failed to discriminate between civilians and military targets." (AI press release, Nov 27, "Afghanistan: NATO must ensure justice for victims of civilian deaths and torture".) Though both the Globe and the Star quite commonly cite or quote Amnesty's comments on any number of issues, on this matter the organization's views were not carried in either paper.
While NATO is consistently vague about which member country's troops undertake which missions, officials have indicated that Canadian Forces members were indeed involved in the fatal attack in Kandahar on October 18. The extent of that involvement (presumably limited to ground operations) was, however, not spelled out. This fact may go some way in excusing the sparseness of reporting (and lack of discussion) of these horrific events in the Canadian media. But what would happen if Canadian troops were known to have killed a civilian? Would the Globe and the Star be more likely to report and comment in that event? Sadly, that question can now be answered in the negative.
On December 12, a Canadian soldier on guard duty shot and killed an Afghan senior citizen in Kandahar City. The man, 90 year-old Haji Abdul Rahman, had approached the provincial governor's palace on his motorcycle. A frequent visitor to the palace, the elderly former teacher had come to pay a visit to his old pupil: Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai. Afghan soldiers in charge of an outer checkpoint, evidently familiar with the locally famous man, had let him pass without questioning him. Upon seeing this, the Canadian soldier became suspicious or alarmed and commenced verbal warnings aimed at the elderly motorcyclist. When these signals did not have the desired effect (a common occurrence, it must be noted, in this conflict as well as the one in Iraq), the soldier fired a warning shot which ricocheted and killed the man, according to a Canadian Forces spokesperson. (See: Vancouver Sun, Dec 14, A15; Pajhwok Afghan News - pajhwok.com, Dec 13.)
Readers would be readily forgiven if they had not heard about this shocking event, as it went largely unreported in Canada's elite media. The Toronto Star simply did not report it at all. The only mention in the Globe was by Rick Salutin in his column (Dec 15, A23). Meanwhile, a search of the CBC website finds no mention of the shooting victim.
It should be obvious from this brief survey that the Canadian mainstream media has done a tremendous disservice to the Canadian public as well as to the embattled population of Afghanistan. It is thus truly vital that media voices outside the mainstream continue their work to inform the public on this subject, about which our media elites seem to prefer public ignorance.